What Is So Special About Black & White Photography?

Tabi basa & greetings everyone. Today I’d like to share about one of the most timeless form of photography, which is Black & White photography.

The title of this blog was taken from the very question asked by one of the person I’ve met along my journey.

Mas-Suara Live at Miri back in 2017, when I first started.

Let’s Start With Introduction

Black & white photographs are synonym to our history, hence laymen often associated with something “old”, and colour are often associated with something “new”.

Joseph-Nicéphore Niépce, (born March 7, 1765, Chalon-sur-Saône, France—died July 5, 1833, Chalon-sur-Saône), French inventor who was the first to make a permanent photographic image. (britannica.com)

Oldest surviving photograph is in black and white (The Niépce Heliograph, 1827), which requires around 8 hours of exposure. The word camera comes from camera obscura, which is Latin for “dark chamber”, basically describing what a camera is, in essence.

Oldest surviving photograph, making Joseph-Nicéphore Niépce as the first photographer (1827)

Then, there was a lot of photograph as well in black and white, including wartime photos, historic event etc. Cats included.

This was the time where many photography legends were born, including my top 3 favourite: Henri-Cartier Bresson (street photographer), Ansel Adams (landscape photographer) and Robert Capa (combat & adventure photographer).

Monochrome VS Black & White

A lot of people confuses between these two terms. I also was like before, until I learned that Monochrome is actually comes from the word “mono” (single) and “chroma” (colour), which means single colour in Latin.

For example: sepia.

The one that we call Black & White is more accurately called “grayscale”, because if we refer to black and white only, it will only use two colours, black and white. But the actual Black and White that we are using now consists of black, white and an entire scale of shades of gray.

Black & White Film Photography

One of the most famous film roll that was used to create this B&W images are Kodak Tri-X 400, where 400 here means its ASA or ISO value, a.k.a its sensitivity towards light. Back then, we decide our ISO value by choosing a specific film type. Some can go as high as 1600, or as low as 15.

These days, we still can purchase Kodak Tri-X 400 although its price is crazy, around RM59 at Shopee. It is a special film roll because you can push it as high as 4 stops, meaning you can shoot it at 6400 ISO and inform your film lab to push it up to 4 stops, though not all labs can do it and it would be pricey.

From Shopee. It used to be few ringgits only in the past.
Here’s the photoshoot that I’ve done with beautiful Nurul Jasmine at Miri, Sarawak using Tri-X 400 film.

Alternatively, interested buyers can purchase other film rolls, including Fomapan & Ilford for much less price. To save more cost, you may process it on your own, although initial investment or limited knowledge might cause you to reconsider.

For those who doesn’t want to deal with film photography processes & just want immediate B&W result, there are options that you can take.

1. GET A DEDICATED B&W CAMERA

Firstly, get a dedicated B&W camera. This is where Leica shines. They have their own Monochrom line of camera, started with M9 Monochrom, M246 Monochrom (based on M240), M10 Monochrom and the latest one, M11 Monochrom. Pentax also followed suit by releasing K3 B&W camera.

Leica M9 Monochrom (10 May 2012), the first ever digital camera with Black & White Sensor (without Bayer filter)
Leica M9 Monochrom (2014), the only Monochrom series that was produced in silver. However, it is so rare that whenever there is one appearing online, it will be snatched before you even realise it is there.
Leica M Monochrom (Typ 246) 30 Apr 2015
Leica M10 Monochrom, 17 Jan 2020
The latest Leica M11 Monochrom camera, launched in 13 Apr 2023. The latest and the best Monochrom camera from Leica so far. I can’t imagine what they are offering for M12 series.
Leica Q2 Monochrom (3 Mar 2022) – for those who enjoys Electronic View Finder (EVF) with a Rangefinder form factor.

Note: these Monochrom (yes, without e) usually comes in black paint body, and absent of red dot Leica logo.

Phase One XF IQ4, $52,000 camera. Without lens. For the ultra-serious folks.
Pentax K-3 III Monochrome is so popular that Ricoh ran out of these camera, TWICE. $2200. No official price in Malaysia yet. It ran out of stock.

A lot of people were wondering, why spend so much on camera that can only shoot B&W? It is about consistency. You want to have an accurate & consistent result everytime you’re doing your shoot. You want to deal with less processes. Hence, just like B&W film shooter, you start with your intention of shooting B&W from the very beginning.

In B&W, you removed all of the chromatic distraction, but instead rely on luminance value – you rely on highlights and shadows. Your composition is different. Your story telling is different. Hence it is important for you to know this even before you press the shutter button.

There is also an advantage of shooting using dedicated monochrome camera, as you actually eliminate the Bayer filter that splits light into RGB value, hence much cleaner image in higher ISO value. You will start with higher base ISO, however.

2. CONVERT COLOUR IMAGES INTO B&W

Secondly, you may shoot using colour camera, but turns on monochrome filter. This helps you with the visualisation process. You also might consider using a B&W processing software, or just use Lightroom / Capture One to process it. This is actually the best option for a lot of peoples because there would a lot of time we found ourselves wanting to shoot colour images, after a while.

B&W images can be beautiful too. It tells a different story. For my personal works, I like to shoot in B&W. In fact, I’ve started off with B&W back in 2017. I’ve shot a lot of B&W during that time until 2018 as demands increase for colour photographs which makes me started to shoot in colour.

What’s So Special About Black & White Photograpahy?

For me, black and white photography is timeless. It also removes any distraction of colour, thus helping viewers to focus on other aspects of the photo, primarily its composition (subject, textures, shapes and patterns).

I also like how I actually can create images using the tools that was being used by the photography legends. In this day and age, often we find that the limiting factor is our creativity, not the technology.

The info that we need is basically one-click away. Our phone produces much more resolution than the camera used 100 years ago.

But, the charm of black and white is on another level.

For Those Who Wants to Start With B&W

If you want to do a B&W photography, just do it. If you listen to the current trend, you will not do anything that you like, but feels like you have to compel to the masses to be regarded as a good photographer. You don’t have to, actually. You just do whichever artwork that is closes to your heart. That’s all that matters.

There is a lot of techniques related to B&W, but that is a topic for another day. We haven’t talk about B&W portraiture. In fact, a lot of boudoir images are made in B&W, just so you know. Fundamental photography rule still applies.

If you are ready, just share it. I quote a friend of mine:

That’s all for now. Stay safe & take care!

Tukang Rantek,
Claudius 

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